It’s become somewhat of a mantra with me – I don’t really like horror movies, but I like movies that have horror elements. It’s a fine line, I grant, but the point is that for many films the adherence to genre expectations trumps all other considerations, be they performative, narrative, or even stylistic choices. It’s the difference between making sure jolts of excitement are doled out in regular intervals versus keeping the eye on the larger prize. At their worst films of this genre employ the same structural tropes as porn, with banal dialogue interspersed with money shots.
Done well, however, there are few cinematic rides more thrilling than a well-constructed film that employs elements of this genre. Some of the best films ever made, in fact, are broadly within this framework. I get more excited when I see a film that works because too often I see one that’s a dud. This works in most genres, of course, with the excitement from a kick-ass action film or a truly moving romantic comedy also quite thrilling, But there’s something even more primal about unsettling cinema that cuts through jaded expectations and a lifetime spent watching films that nonetheless creates moments of genuine unsettlement.
At its best 10 Cloverfield Lane is pretty fantastic. It’s a movie about horror movies in some ways, one that purposely twists expectations you have of the genre coming in. And like any good scare the less you know about it ahead of time, the better.
One thing working against the film is the reference in the title to 2008’s found-footage monster romp. Suffice to say for the most part this film is related tangentially – not quite as tangentially as, say, Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, but still far enough away to make needing to see the original moot. In fact, it was only the opening kinetic shots of a woman leaving her partner that made me dread that we might be in for some late-aughts barfcam for the whole running time.
Instead, first time director Dan Trachtenberg goes a lot more classical in his compositions, allowing the circumstances of the film to provide the visceral thrills rather than the need to visually unsettle the frame to do the heavy lifting. One can just compose a simple shot and still have all the power in the world when the likes of John Goodman is in frame, and the performer has rarely been this effective. His range and intensity is the greatest special effect in the whole piece, constantly undermining expectations as we sway back-and-forth through the narrative twists.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead has had a career in many of those schlocky horror films I detest, but here manages to come across as tough and intelligent while only rarely preposterous in her capabilities. It’s another in a long line of powerful female characters that producer J.J. Abrahms has championed, and one can see echoes in everything from Alias through to Rey in Force Awakens.
John Gallagher Jr. is a Broadway guy (he was the lead in American Idiot, among other shows) but here he dials down any sense of theatricality to craft a really important and subtle character. As the three performers play off each other with very different styles and motivations we’re treated to a taut, claustrophobic morality play, the rage and kindness ebbing and flowing in equal measure.
10 Cloverfield Lane oozes paranoia, in part by cleverly building up situations only to have them collapse in surprising ways. Yet the effectiveness of the piece doesn’t require one to turn off your brain to enjoy, and second guessing certain behaviours actually works to the film’s favour.
If there’s a misstep, it’s a giant one, as the last ten minutes or so takes quite a bit of suspension of disbelief after such a considered and frankly realistic work. I get why they went in the direction they did and I don’t have a real great answer on how they could have wrapped things up except truly embracing some of the film’s more existentially despondent proclivities. Still, there’s so much great that takes place before that it’s possible for forgive where they end up taking it all.
Normally such a stumble would make me rage, but even the denouement can’t make me forget the powerful work done by the three performers in the bunker. It’s a testament to tight storytelling and nuanced yet emotionally powerful performances that gives the film its real life, and for that it’s to be applauded. It’s equally fair to say that the title again doesn’t help with the ending, as it coming truly out of left-field might have given it the jolt required.
Don’t let the stumble at the end keep you from embracing the film, and do try to go in as free from expectations as possible. 10 Cloverfield Lane is clever, effective and at times riveting, and forgiving its exuberance at the close it’s a terrific, impactful work that does what it does in ways that should thrill audiences.